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Historic Ketch Ilen Finds Secure Winter Berth in Workaday Setting of Limerick Docks

16th October 2018
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 Ilen secure for the winter in the Ted Russell Dock in Limerick, where there are daily reminders that this is very much a working port, and Limerick is a manufacturing town Ilen secure for the winter in the Ted Russell Dock in Limerick, where there are daily reminders that this is very much a working port, and Limerick is a manufacturing town Photo: Gary MacMahon

The restored 1926-built 56ft ketch Ilen proudly tells us on her transom that her home port is Limerick writes W M Nixon. And while Limerick may have come to prominence as a raiding base and trading centre for the Vikings at the head of the Shannon Estuary, today it is a strategically-located commercial and manufacturing city where - despite many handsome buildings - you are never far from reminders that this is a place where they make things, and metal-working is often involved.

The Ilen Project’s work has reached the successful conclusion of the re-born “small tall ship” making the passage at near-record speed from Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt near Baltimore in West Cork right up the coast of West Cork and Kerry to the length of the Shannon Estuary and the heart of the city in the Ted Russell Dock. There, further protection is provided by the lock gates necessitated by the large tidal range at the head of the estuary.

In her home port, Ilen and her crew have constant reminders that Limerick is a working place. All sorts of cargoes are coming and going, and though she is in the choice position of being allocated a prime spot beside the official Pilot Boat berth, just across the quayside is the transit point for many cargoes. And at the weekend in the sunshine, it had a mountain of scrap metal ultimately destined for “other places beyond the seas”. 

ilen limerick docks2Ilen’s location seems completely different from a changed perspective. Photo: Gary MacMahon

It can be other shipments at other times, but as the Limerick folk are taking the Ilen to their generous hearts, they know that a completely sheltered winter berth is vital, regardless of what neighbouring cargoes may be like from time to time.

With Ilen now securely in place in her home port, the connection can be made with the Ilen Exhibition which has been running successfully at the city’s Hunt Museum, so much so that the Ilen Schools Programme is now booked up until the end of November. There’ll be a further official ceremony on November 1st to link the Hunt Museum Exhibition (which runs until November 14th) with the ship’s presence in the dock, and meanwhile exciting plans for the vessel’s programme in 2019 and beyond are taking shape, all to be revealed in due course.

rosies at hunt3Keen crew: an Ilen Workshop under way in the Hunt Museum for pupils from “Rosie’s” – aka Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School, Rosbrien, Limerick.

sabina and crew4President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins with Ilen’s crew in Limerick Docks. Photo Ilen Network

For the Ilen Boat-Building School team, it will all be a new stage in the process, which reached a high point when President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina made a point of going aboard Ilen during their recent Limerick visit, and meeting those who were both involved in the re-build, and as the delivery crew.

For Project Director Gary MacMahon, the focus of life is under-going a complete change. During the eleven-year re-build, he made the return journey between Limerick and Oldcourt more than 500 times. There are times when West Cork can seem very far away, no matter where you start from…..

As for the delivery passage, it went smooth as silk in light winds, drawing on Ilen’s reality as a motor-sailer. She’s powered by a 150hp Gardner diesel with a 2:1 gearbox which is perfectly in balance with the big propeller, such that at 1,000 rpm the ship is at optimum speed with the engine temperature never going above 60 degrees.

ilen at skellig5Smooth progress. Ilen makes her way past Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast, on course for Limerick from Baltimore. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Thus the total time for the passage was just 17 hours, and when it became evident they were going to be early, with night upon them they were able to pull into Carrigaholt on the Clare side of the Estuary for a four-hour rest. That was the sweet spot for Gary MacMahon. The anchorage and quay at Carrigaholt are dominated by the distinctive 1480-built castle of the MacMahons, the Chieftans of the Loop Head Peninsula. Maybe it was time for the ancestors themselves to show respect for a wonderful project nearing its successful conclusion……

carrigaholt castle6Carrigaholt Castle, an ancient stronghold of the MacMahons on the north shore of the Shannon Estuary. This was Ilen’s only stopping place on the passage from Baltimore to Limerick

Published in Ilen
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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The Ilen is the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships.

Designed by Limerick man Conor O’Brien and built in Baltimore in 1926, she was delivered by Munster men to the Falkland Islands where she served valiantly for seventy years, enduring and enjoying the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties.

Returned now to Ireland and given a new breath of life, Ilen may be described as the last of Ireland’s timber-built ocean-going sailing ships, yet at a mere 56ft, it is capable of visiting most of the small harbours of Ireland.

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